Book Review - Interpreting the Pauline Letters

The life of a pastor is busy. Hectic may be a better word. And in the 21st Century, the pace of life has quickened for everyone, while the expectations for what a pastor must do have only increased. Fortunately, there are an abundance of books and resources designed to give the pastor or teacher a helping hand. Interpreting the Pauline Letters by John D. Harvey, will prove not only helpful but indispensable in the study of the Pauline Epistles.

The book is an exegetical handbook designed to prepare the pastor, teacher or student for an intensive study through Paul’s letters. But it doesn’t stop there. Harvey’s intent is not merely to educate about the historical background of these treasured NT epistles. He aims to facilitate a pastoral application of the Word for today’s hearers. To that end, the book includes a section on how to craft an expositional sermon as well as two examples where Harvey walks through all the steps in preparing a sermon on a text from one of Paul’s letters.

Genre and structure

The book begins with a study of the genre of Paul’s letters, comparing Paul’s writing with formal and informal letter styles from the ancient world. Harvey draws careful, balanced conclusions from a comparison of the structure of all of Paul’s letters and explains the function of various sub-units of Paul’s letters. In this chapter, I was introduced to the terms “apostolic parousia” and “apostolic apologia” which play an important role in Paul’s letters and have commonalities with other ancient letters. He also looks at the role rhetoric plays in Paul’s letters. I found his thoughts on the genre to be instructive and not overblown: a helpful survey to keep in mind as one approaches Paul’s letters.

Historical background

Next Harvey surveys the historical background of Paul’s writings. This section was perhaps the most fascinating. The conservative pastor will be appreciative that the arguments for and against Paul’s authorship of all the traditional Pauline epistles are briefly surveyed and a defense of Pauline authorship—even of the pastoral epistles, is presented. He defends Pauline authorship well but in a cursory manner. He then argues for the integrity of the epistles as we find them in Scripture—2 Corinthians and Philippians in particular are discussed. He then attempts to build a chronology of the historical background for Paul’s letters from a study of just the letters themselves. He compares this with what we find in Acts and finds complementarity not disharmony. He presents an interesting argument for Philippians being the last of Paul’s letters, but presents the traditional view as well. He is careful not to base too much on historical reconstructions where the evidence is slim. Harvey shines in this section as he navigates the reader through the ins and outs of Pauline scholarship.

Biblical theology

The handbook continues with a section on Paul’s theology, which emphasizes “the great transfer” from darkness to light, from being in the world to being in Christ, from Satan’s dominion to the power of God. He traces a theology of each of the letters as well. He only briefly discusses “covenantal nomism” and the New Pauline Perspective, arguing for a traditional view. This in my view is the book’s biggest weakness. By only briefly surveying that issue (and by brief I mean about a half page), the handbook is perhaps more acceptable by a wider audience, but it is less helpful for the busy pastor who wants to know more about this important Pauline question.

Text and translation

The book then moves away from a laser focus on Paul’s epistles to a more generic approach to studying Scripture. Textual criticism and translation are discussed, with several approaches for busy teachers—from comparing translations to doing you own translation from the Greek text (advocated as the best approach). In this section I was pleased to see the Majority Text view of Byzantine priority given equal treatment with the prevailing preference for Alexandrian manuscripts. Most works of this scholarly nature hardly give the Byzantine perspective any mention at all. It is almost a certainty that for conservative pastors, the question of Byzantine priority will come up. Harvey attempts to be even-handed even while ultimately siding with the majority scholarly opinion. After focusing on translation and defining the text to be studied, he gives a general study of how to interpret passages synthetically. He focuses on historical, lexical/linguistic, and theological analyses in a brief but helpful way. The historical analyses were redundant for this book and a bit distracting in my opinion, but everything else was quite useful.

Building the sermon

In the next section, Harvey focused on homiletics and how to build a sermon using deductive or inductive patterns. Like the previous sections on translation and interpretation, the examples were from Paul’s epistles but the content was broad and applicable to all of the New Testament. It is here that he also focuses on applying the text to the 21st Century.

In the final section he provides two case-studies applying all the tools, starting with textual criticism and translation of the text, to historical study, literary/linguistic analysis, syntactical study, theological analysis, appropriation, and homiletical packaging. Walking the reader through his method helps bring the whole book together.

Evaluation

I was impressed with how useful and accessible this handbook was for the average reader. It will benefit lay teachers and pastors alike. While it doesn’t cover everything I would like, it is a fine resource which stays faithful to a conservative approach to Scripture. This book is one of a series produced by Kregel Publications: the “Handbooks for New Testament Exegesis.” There is also an OT set of handbooks as well. I’ll be wanting to collect the entire set after my time spent reading through this example. I encourage you to check out this helpful series as well.

About the author

John D. Harvey is Professor of New Testament and Dean of the Seminary and School of Ministry at Columbia International University in Columbia, SC. He earned his Doctor of Theology degree from Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto. His previous books include Listening to the Text: Oral Patterning in Paul’s Letters, Greek is Good Grief: Laying the Foundation for Exegesis and Exposition, and Anointed with the Spirit and Power: A Biblical Theology of Holy Spirit Empowerment. He is an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and is actively involved in pulpit supply. He has served cross-culturally in Europe and Africa.

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There are 6 Comments

Bob Hayton's picture

Charlie,

One could argue that every new commentary is redundant - yet we have dozens of commentary sets on each testament.

This book is part of a series of handbooks for OT and NT exegesis from Kregel. So far there are four books completed in this series:

  • Interpreting the Pentateuch
  • Interpreting the Psalms
  • Interpreting the Historical Books
  • Interpreting the Pauline Letters

Schreiner's book serves a similar purpose I'm sure. I am not aware if his is part of a larger series or not. Thanks for bringing it up, though....

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Charlie's picture

This review is actually for Schreiner's book, but it exudes the hilarity I've come to expect from 1-star Amazon reviews:

"The author is a pompastic lofty self complementative intellectual. This book is not for the lay person. The author often demurs from actually giving a commentary (exegesis) referring the reader elsewhere."

 

We'll see if Harvey is able to garner such critical acclaim.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Darrell Post's picture

Bob is right, there is not really redundancy here when you have a new book by another author who interacts with the same material. There are examples out there of redundancy. The most recent example that comes to mind is the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament:

http://www.amazon.com/Commentary-New-Testament-Use-Old/dp/0801026938/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1375370246&sr=8-1&keywords=use+of+the+old+testament+in+the+new+testament

 

Here the contributors for most of the NT books just happen to be the same scholars who have already published major commentaries on those NT books, and so if you already own those commentaries, you are getting basically the same information. And in a book like this, you would expect to find problem passages evenly handled where the scholar lays out all the options for the reader. However, when I checked, for instance, Matthew's use of Isaiah 7:14, I found only the author's personal view presented as though other alternatives did not exist or had no merit....the same way it was presented in his commentary.

All this does not mean the book is unworthy of purchase, but it is an example of redundancy.  

Bob Hayton's picture

Charlie wrote:

This review is actually for Schreiner's book, but it exudes the hilarity I've come to expect from 1-star Amazon reviews:

"The author is a pompastic lofty self complementative intellectual. This book is not for the lay person. The author often demurs from actually giving a commentary (exegesis) referring the reader elsewhere."

 

We'll see if Harvey is able to garner such critical acclaim.

Funny! Imagine, an academic reference book being, well, academic!

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

CPHurst's picture

Having read this book and Schreiner's book as well I would say they are as far apart as they can be for covering the same material. Schreiner's book has a lot more exegetical helps such as diagramming sentences. I would tell every NT student to get both of these books and maybe have them read one or the other for parts that overlap. They are both useful enough to warant getting both.

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